Electroceuticals Get into the Game

Researchers and entrepreneurs in the neurotechnology industry are used to playing backup to pharmaceutical companies when it comes to funding, regulatory approval, and investment decisions. Implanted stimulation devices are often regarded as a last-resort to be tried only after every possible drug, or combination of drugs, has failed.

But the advent of “electroceuticals”—a term that points up the growing recognition of the potential for bioelectronic interventions—may change the status of neurotech devices from second-string to starting lineup. Some recent publicity for neurotech strategies highlight the public’s changing perception about implanted devices.

In the May 23 edition of the New York Times Magazine, writer Michael Behar highlights the work of Kevin Tracey, president of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and the founder of SetPoint Medical, a neurotech device startup targeting inflammatory diseases. SetPoint received a $5 million investment from GlaxoSmithKline last year as part of its $50 million fund for bioelectronics ventures. “I think this is the industry that will replace the drug industry,” Tracey said in the Times article.

More fuel for that line of speculation was provided by the news that Stanford engineers have developed a way to wirelessly transfer power deep inside the body, and to use this power to run minute electronic medical devices. The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, generated considerable publicity for Stanford and the electrical engineering professor, Ada Poon, who led the project. And it further highlighted the possibility that this technology could provide a path toward a new type of medicine that allows physicians to treat diseases with electronics rather than drugs.

Poon believes this discovery will spawn a new generation of programmable microimplants—sensors to monitor vital functions deep inside the body; electrostimulators to change neural signals in the brain; drug delivery systems to apply medicines directly to affected areas.

William Newsome, director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, said Poon’s work created the potential to develop electroceutical treatments as alternatives to drug therapies. He said such treatments could be more effective than drugs because electroceutical approaches would implant devices near specific brain circuits to directly modulate their activity. Drugs, by comparison, act globally throughout the brain.

Of course, there are many other advantages that microelectronic devices have over drugs, not least of which is the tendency of electronic devices to double their performance while reducing power consumption and shrinking in size with each new generation.

With advantages like these, clinicians, investors, and regulators would be wise to get neurotech devices off the bench and into the game.

James Cavuoto

Editor and Publisher

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